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The tounge is a fire

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 19—Year B; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-8; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 – Video

Well, the Letter of James takes us into the belly of the beast this morning. Strap in, this is going to get personal and uncomfortable.

James starts off well, well maybe not for a lot of us at St. Luke’s so closely tied as many of us are to education. Here’s how he begins: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.Sorry all you teachers.

But then it gets better—For all of us make many mistakes. That’s good. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Okay, that’s not going to be most of us, but we’re not trying to achieve perfection anyway, right? But then James takes this bridle metaphor and goes a little crazy with it.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

And by member, James means part of the body. But James doesn’t stop there; oh no, he’s just getting cranked up.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

It’s like James’ brain is doing this rapid-fire word association thing—you can just see all the neurons firing—and he’s making all these connections.

The tongue is a small member…small fires lead to forest fires…the tongue is a fire…the tongue is a member placed among all of our members as a world of iniquity—it stains the whole body…one member affects the whole…one spark can start a fire that grows into a big fire, affects the whole forest…back to fire, fire, oh, it sets on fire the cycle of nature…oh, and it’s set on fire by hell, hell is hot and fiery…cycle of nature, oh, every species of beast and bird, reptile and sea creature, they can all be tamed and have been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue!tame takes us back to bridle, and we’ve closed the metaphorical loop; we made it!

And then James gets downright philosophical, almost existential.

With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

James is pondering one of the more confusing and painful aspects of human existence—with the tongue we bless and with the tongue we curse, from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. How can this be? James laments, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so…If the source is good, how can both of these things come out of the mouth?”

Has James gone over the top here? I don’t think so. In fact, for about three weeks now I have been feeling that urge to give my election-cycle pastoral counsel, mostly prompted by how venomous the rhetoric is out there right now. We have to understand how this works if we are to maintain humanity in the midst of this season because James is right—the tongue is a small member, but it can start a fire, and that fire can consume everything in its path.

And it starts so small. A joke here about this political candidate, a joke there about that political candidate—just blowing off a little steam, just relieving a little frustration, a little pent-up political pressure. Right now, if I say the name Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or the names of any of the other 16+ candidates, words or images will come to your mind, and some of those words will be about personal attributes, and some of those words won’t be kind, some may even be derogatory. And then you hear a joke in your circle of like-minded friends or co-workers, or on late-night TV, or a joke gets posted on Facebook, and you do that thumbs-up thing—you “Like” it—and then you repost it. And never mind the awful things the candidates are saying about one another, we’ve just started our own little fire in our part of the world.What starts as just one little joke, in the words of James, curses someone who is made in the likeness of God, and that energy spreads like wildfire.

And as we know from wildfires raging out of control, these fires consume everything in their path; they are devastating; and they hurt. And these fires started by the tongue, these wildfires hurt because we can’t ever talk about a member of our body, as in the tongue, without also remembering that “body” is the image for our corporate existence.

We are members of the Body of Christ—we are members of one another. What starts with one member affects the whole—what starts with me affects you, what starts with you affects me.

And when we participate in these fires, we are all diminished. We diminish the candidates, we diminish the process, we diminish whole swaths of brothers and sisters we don’t even know, and we diminish our brother or sister sharing the pew we are sitting on who may have a different perspective, AND we diminish ourselves because we have violated our solemn baptismal vow—foundational to the way we follow Jesus—“to respect the dignity of every human being.”

When we strike a spark to start one of these fires, or when we fan its flames, or when we pour gas on it, we have to look deep into our own heart and ask ourselves why? We all make many mistakes, James says as much, but I also think James is right—this stuff doesn’t spew from a good source. So, when we participate in this stuff, we have to look deep in our own heart and see what is not right. What in us wants to diminish that other person who is made in the likeness of God, beloved of God no less than I? Our culture tears people down for sport, but that is not the way of Jesus.

Oh, he’ll tackle hard issues with the leaders of his day, and he’ll use strong language, but he was also willing to set down and dine with his opponents. It’s an election season, we’ve got to participate. We’ve got to dig deep down into our values informed by our faith and let them inform how we approach every issue of policy. And we’ve got to have that order right-side up—faith is the spring that issues forth into policy; policies don’t dictate faith. Now, faith can certainly issue forth in different policy approaches—a spring can end up flowing into different streams—I’m just pushing us to consider what’s informing what.

I’ve shared this before—like every Presidential election cycle to be precise—but it bears repeating. The moment where this all changed for me was when my seminary Christian ethics professor looked me dead in the eye and said, “Cyndi, I don’t care what you say as a Democrat, what do you say as a Christian?” And I realized in that moment that I had to rethink every single policy position that I had starting from the place of my faith. And that work has occupied me ever since, and it’s made things a whole lot more complicated. It’s a bear when you have to be ethically consistent and coherent within your positions and ethically consistent and coherent withthe life and teaching of Jesus. All those people and concerns that occupied Jesus, these have to be in our hearts and in our minds as we engage the political process. We can’t separate out our faith and politics because in Jesus everything holds together. He didn’t divide out sacred and secular, political and religious, ordinary and holy. Everything for Jesus was holy and consecrated. His whole drive was toward wholeness for everything and everyone—that’s what salvation means, and anything that was a barrier to that, he took on.

Policy matters, and as people of faith, we should be in the rough and tumble of policy debates, but may we use our tongues in Isaiah-fashion, like the tongue of a teacher and, as James suggests, know that as we do, we will be judged with a greater strictness. May we use our tongues like Isaiah and sustain the weary with a word. May we use our tongues as the psalmist did and call upon the LORD. May we use our tongues tolift up our supplications, for ourselves, for our town, for our county, for our state, for our nation, for the world. May we use our tongues to bless those who are near and those who are far. May we use our tongues to sing and praise and raise up hearts that are bowed down. And, oh my gosh, UniZulu Chorale, you have taught us what a tongue set free can do.

You have taught us how a tongue trained to praise can spark a joy in another’s heart so deep that we didn’t even know that much joy was possible. You have taught us how a tongue trained to cry for freedom can bring that freedom about, not just in a pie-in-the-sky way, but at the most foundational, structural levels of society. You have taught us how the tongue can kindle a fire that can sweep across a whole community and make them one. We saw it here Friday night when 350+ people were singing and clapping and moving, sometimes not together, but moving nonetheless, as ONE.

We cannot thank you enough for showing us what the tongue can do. You have shown us the goodness of your hearts and reminded us of the goodness in ours. We are one body in Christ, and what you have done has affected us all.

Brothers and sisters, in this election season that will be with us for the next 15 months, may we drink from THISgood and pure source. May we call on the Lord GOD to bridle our tongues. May we exercise every bit of restraint that it will surely take not to participate in the restless evil and deadly poison that so many tongues are unleashing. May we be ever mindful and not strike that first spark, may we not fan flames, may we not pour gas on fires already raging. May we resist the urge to curse [any of] those made in the likeness of God, which is everyone.

Instead, may we remember this last week that we have had with our friends, now family, from South Africa, and may we use our tongues only to bless. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

September 13, 2015

Jesus skips the shame cycle

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 18—Year B; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37 — Video

We definitely get a sense of God’s passion today. Isaiah 35the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

The psalmist picks up this refrain: Happy are they whose hope is in the LORD their God; who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

So, God is about caring for the oppressed and opening up the eyes of the blind and unstopping the ears of the deaf and setting the tongue free to sing for joy! And certainly, that’s what Jesus is about in that passage we just heard from Mark.

They have brought a deaf man to Jesus who had an impediment in his speech. So, he takes this man aside in private, away from the crowd, and he puts his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touches his tongue. Then he looks up to heaven, he sighs, and he says to the man, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened.” And immediately the man’s ears were opened, and his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

And Jesus orders the people to tell no one, and the more he tells them not to talk, the more zealously they proclaim it. The text tells us, “They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

Jesus is totally about God’s passion for the poor and oppressed, for the blind and the deaf and the mute; Jesus is totally about God’s passion for those who are bowed down, for the widow and the orphan and the stranger and the hungry. See Luke 4 where Jesus reads the Isaiah text that talks about these concerns and says to those gathered, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” See Matthew 25 where Jesus proclaims unequivocally that in caring for the least of these, we care for him.

Jesus has a Godly perspective; he’s got the right vision; he gets what God is all about in this world; he embodies it in his every action, in his every encounter. He has done everything well. Right?

I love this story from Mark 7. It is one of my most favorite stories about Jesus because this is one of the times, recorded in the sacred text, when Jesus absolutely blows it. He gets it totally wrong. Let’s walk through this story again.

Jesus has just finished arguing with the Pharisees and scribes about how they make a mockery of the commandments by clinging to their human tradition. He has gone off to the region of Tyre. Tyre is a lovely little town over on the coast. You almost get the sense that Jesus wanted a little downtime, a little seaside holiday. He enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. He wants to be left alone.

But he’s Jesus. Word about him has spread. The chances of him going unnoticed are zero to none. A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately hears about him, and she comes and bows down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. Read an outsider to outsiders. She was a woman and a Gentile—culturally, that’s two strikes against her.

She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. And listen to how he responds. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Really Jesus? Honestly, did you just call a woman whose daughter is suffering, a woman who has come to you for help, did you just call her a dog? Did you really just tell her that she and her daughter are not worthy of healing because she is not an Israelite, because she doesn’t belong to the right tribe? Did you just deny her care and concern because she is a “them” and not an “us.” Uh, Jesus, can you like remember how you just chewed out the Pharisees and scribes for letting their human tradition get in the way of showing care and compassion for a fellow human being? What gives? Not your finest hour.

On this occasion, Jesus flunks pastoral sensitivity. And not only does he not extend care, but in the process, he shames the woman; he equates her to a dog. Wow.

And she, she calls him on it. She stands her sacred ground, and she calls him on it.

But the woman answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

This stops him cold; she completely turns the tables on him, and then HIS eyes were opened, and HIS ears were unstopped, and he saw, in a way he never had before, just how big God’s vision really is.

Then Jesus said to the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

It is so important for us to know that the Lord we worship, the Lord we follow, absolutely had the capacity to blow it, just like you and just like me. And this woman, where did she get the strength, the moxie, to stand up to Jesus and call him on his narrow and myopic vision? How was it that she trusted her own intuitive wisdom that she and her daughter were indeed worthy of Jesus’ care and concern? How was it that, in the face of his authority, she could call Jesus to lay down his armor, and call forth the best of Jesus’ heart, and call him to move beyond the limits and boundaries he had placed on his compassion? I’d love to know more about what had shaped her and forged her strength.

There’s something else about this exchange that is important. When Jesus is confronted with the magnitude of his empathetic miss, he immediately circles back and makes it right. That’s the very definition of accountability—admit the mistake, figure out how to make it right, and make amends, and he circled back immediately and without shame. When we mess up with someone, and they call us on it, we can easily get sucked into the shame vortex. If I were Jesus, I would be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m the Son of God, how did I mess that up so badly? Worst Son of God ever,” and I would be paralyzed.

When we go into the shame pit, we either move to blame or the could-I-just-please-disappear-now place or that icky how-can-I-win-you-back place, and in that state, we are actually less likely to own our mistake and set it right.

Jesus didn’t go to the shame place. When the tradition talks about Jesus being as we are in every way, yet without sin, I think this is what it’s talking about. Sin literally means “missing the mark,” not shame; but even more, sin is about separation.

Jesus missed the mark, just like we do, but Jesus didn’t allow anything to throw him out of God’s Presence—not even his big, colossal, messy mistakes.

Jesus didn’t allow his mistake to separate him from God. Jesus had an unshakeable sense of his own worthiness; he didn’t allow his mistake to trigger his shame; he didn’t turn on the woman and blame her, nor did he disappear on the woman, nor did he try to win her back—he simply stayed connected; he circled back; he gave her the care and concern and compassion she deserved, and he healed her daughter, and in so doing, HIS vision was healed so that he could SEE and HEAR in expanded ways.

And when he left her, he went to the Decapolis—he went to Gentile territory and opened ears that were blocked and set tongues free so that they could sing for joy.

Thank God this story is preserved in our tradition. The Lord we follow—he made mistakes, and so will we, every day.

Can we step into those uncomfortable moments when it all goes off the rails? Can we be as brave as that Syrophoenician woman and call one another on those misses when they happen? Can we be as brave as Jesus and stand still while a brother or a sister brings to our awareness             the narrowness of our vision and those places where we are lacking in concern and compassion? Can we take a cue from Jesus and know in the depths of our being             that our mistakes don’t have to throw us out of God’s Presence? Can we skip the whole shame cycle,      can we skip the whole blame-disappear-grovel thing—it is such wasted energy! Can we commit to the practice of circling back and know that as we do, our eyes will be opened and our ears will get unstopped and our vision will expand to match the expansion in our hearts          and something in us will get healed and made whole? And then, can we rejoice    because in that moment, all of our tongues will be set free to sing for joy. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 6, 2015

Lay down your armor

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16—Year B; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69 — Video.

When I looked at the scriptures for today and saw that this passage from Ephesians was assigned, I thought, “Oh, it doesn’t get any better than this! We get to talk about armor!” But we’ve got to back into this image because armor can mean a whole lot of things—some of it good, and some of it not so good.

This whole idea of armor is pretty big in the Brené Brown work I’ve been doing the last year. I know I’ve touched on this before, but it is always good to run through it again.

She describes armor as those behaviors and ways of being in the world that we put on to protect us from vulnerability. Our armor consists of those front-end strategies that we use to avoid feeling vulnerable. We put on armor in the hopes that we can protect ourselves from the icky feelings that come when we are sinking in uncertainty, or feel at risk in some way, or are feeling exposed.

Brown talks about three types of armor that are pretty universal—foreboding joy, perfectionism, and numbing.

Foreboding joy is where we don’t really allow ourselves to feel joy because we know it can be gone in a heartbeat. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt or caught off guard, so we project out into the future and catastrophize all that could go wrong, or we just choose not to expect too much, ergo, we avoid feeling disappointment.

Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving for excellence (which is a good thing). Perfectionism is driven by the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect and get it all right, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism, at its heart, is about trying to earn approval, and it actually hampers achievement because our fear of failing, or making mistakes, our fear of not meeting people’s expectations, our fear of being criticized actually keep us playing small. When we are in this place, we’re not willing to really put ourselves out there—it’s just too risky.

We numb to keep from really feeling that exposed feeling that makes our skin crawl when we are in uncertainty and risk. We do it with food and drink and drugs and spending. We do it with our electronic devices and Instagram and facebook and binge-watching series on Netflix or PBS Masterpiece Theater. We can numb with just about anything, and I am sure that you have your own unique ways to numb, as do I.

So, these are the three big shields. Then Brown talks about a few smaller ones. There’s the Viking or Victim shield where you are always exerting control for fear of being victimized or you think of yourself as the one who is always being taken advantage of. There’s Letting It All Hang Out where you share way too much too fast and try to hotwire a connection—this is the I-just-met-you-and-we-are-going-to-be-BFF’s, or you sort of smash through people’s social boundaries with intimate information in an effort to grab attention—think of the oversharing that can happen on social media. There’s Serpentining, one of my personal favorites, where you spend immense amounts of energy doing everything but the hard, vulnerable thing you are avoiding doing—this is when I straighten up my clutter and clean. And then there are the shields of cynicism, criticism, cool, and cruelty—these are plentiful in our culture.

That’s a ton of armor that we have to choose from. What are some other pieces of armor that we could add to our collection? Think about the things that you do because you want to be perceived in a certain way, or the things that you do because you don’t want to be perceived in a certain way—these are your go too armor. So, what are some others? (pause) Others—competence, overcompensating.

So, here’s the thing. We all use this stuff—DAILY. I have described this to 7th graders, 4th-6th graders, other clergy. Universally, people get this. We all resonate with all the ways we armor up to defend and protect our very, very vulnerable heart.

So, last spring, I was presenting this to our 7th graders as they were preparing for their Rite of Passage—and middle schoolers totally get this—this is their world. And one of our very wise 7th graders looked up at me and said, “Well, if the armor keeps you from feeling vulnerable, why wouldn’t you want that?” I was stumped, and this voice in my head said, “Yeah Cyndi, she’s got a really good point, why wouldn’t you want to do that???” So, I took that question back to my Daring Way small group, and we went deeper. First, it’s an illusion that this armor can actually keep you from feeling vulnerable—life is full of risk, uncertainty, and feeling exposed—we can’t avoid vulnerability—it’s built into the warp and weft of life. Second, and perhaps more importantly, while we associate feeling vulnerable with feeling bad, vulnerability is also the birthplace of all the emotions and experiences that we want more of—love, joy, faith, trust, creativity, innovation, and belonging. My small group leader then went on to say this, “It’s not that you don’t take anything with you into the arena. We can’t ask people to show up in their lives and be brave and send them in with nothing. You do get to take something in for protection—you get to take in your core values. Your core values are your Coat of Arms.” That image really grabbed me. The Coat of Arms was prominent in the Middle Ages and it was a way to mark your identity, and it did serve as a form of protection.

So, what is our Coat of Arms as Christian people? Well, first, it’s our core, unshakeable identity first proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism and given to us at ours—we are beloved sons and daughters of God, and in us, God is well-pleased. This is our Coat of Arms. And then, thank you St. Paul for helping us identify all of the other really cool pieces of armor that go with that core Coat of Arms.

According to Paul, we get to put on the whole armor of God—that’s, like, the whole complete set, so that we can stand against the wiles of the devil, so that we can stand against all that cunning, deceitful stuff out there driven by diabolos—all those forces that want to throw things apart. Paul reminds us that our struggle is not about wrestling with our flesh and blood—it’s not about labeling our humanity bad—our struggle is much more complicated than that, much larger, much more cosmic, much harder to sort out. Our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

That’s a potent mouthful. The rulers—in the greek, this is the first person or thing in a series, it’s the leader, but it also has this sense of being the beginning, the orgin. So, we are wrestling with that force that has been throwing things apart since the very beginning.

Authorities­—exousia—POWER. And remember, Jesus taught as one with authority, and the root of his authority is this same exousia. Power is not inherently bad, but it can be welded in devastating, crushing ways.  As Christian people, we can’t opt out of power, but we have to take our cues from Jesus as to how we use it.

Cosmic powers—one look around our world is enough to convince me that these unseen, but oh so real, powers exist at levels beyond my understanding.

And spiritual forces—again, greek is pneumatikos—which is also the root for Spirit, as in Holy Spirit. Spiritual forces can be immeasurably good, but spiritual forces can be incredibly destructive. In a nutshell, we, as people of the Jesus way, are playing with fire—the power given to us can be incredibly good, and that power can be turned to incredibly evil ends.

We are wrestling with POWER—our own and the powers that are battering our world.

Therefore, Paul says, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. A big part of what we are called to do is stand there, stand in the midst of these battles, stand in the midst of pain and suffering, stand. I love that phrase, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” It’s more powerful than you might imagine. But we don’t stand there naked. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist—not our little truth of personal preference, but the great big truth of God’s love and desire that all may thrive, the kind of truth that Jesus proclaims again and again—and put on the breastplate of righteousness—the breastplate of right relationship, this is what goes across your heart. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—we walk in whatever practices we can find that will enable us to be peacemakers, reconcilers, proclaimers of the good news of this peace that passes all understanding.

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. What a wonderful image! Take this shield of complete trust in God’s love made flesh in Jesus—hold that love out before you and whatever arrows are coming your way, let them get absorbed by that shield of love, and let that love absolutely melt those arrows away so that, ultimately, they can’t hurt you. Take the helmet of salvationtake the helmet of wholeness—let that infuse your mind, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of Godthe word of God that can pierce our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we are contending—but not a sword to obliterate, the sword of the Spirit is always a sword that is cutting a new path, slicing through barriers to set loose creativity and newness and life.

Paul then counsels us to pray in the Spirit always, at all times, in every prayer, in every supplication.  The Spirit is already praying within us, always, in sighs too deep for words the prayers and longings and desires of our hearts, prayers that we don’t even have words for. We never pray alone—the Spirit is always praying with us. And then Paul tells us to keep alert and persevere. And he asks our prayers, that he can proclaim the mystery of the gospel with boldness, and Paul understands that he is compelled to proclaim this mysterious, beautiful gospel—he is an ambassador of it, he is bound to it. And the root for ambassador is presbeuo—it’s the word for elder. We are called to be wise elders of this good news, and to proclaim and mentor people in the way of Jesus.

We can put on a whole lot of armor that will weigh us down and guard our heart and absolutely rob us of joy and creativity and love and belonging, OR we can put on our Coat of Arms and the whole armor of God and stand firm while our hearts soar.

But I will tell you this, which armor we don is a daily choice. There are a lot of forces pulling us to toward the armor that defends our heart like a fortress, and precious little support for standing in this world as people of love and hope and peace. That’s why we come here, that’s why we have each other, that’s why we eat the bread and drink the wine, that’s why we pray.

Lay down your old armor.

Take up on the whole armor of God.

Your heart and soul are longing to put on armor that isn’t near so heavy to wear.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

August 23, 2015

Jesus has broken down the dividing wall

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Eighth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 11); Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Video

There is so much packed into today’s lessons, I can hardly stand it. Ephesians is where we are going to eventually land, but to get there, we have to start with Jeremiah. We have to start with the state of the world as it is, and the window that Jeremiah gives us onto his world can help us look out upon our own with clear sight.

In a nutshell, things are not good. The shepherds are not shepherding. The sheep are scattered. The shepherds are not attending to the sheep, and it’s not just that they are not attending to the sheep, the shepherds, those charged with leading, those charged with making sure that no one gets lost, those charged with helping the flock find the green pastures and the still waters, those charged with helping the sheep revive their soul and find the right pathway, the shepherds aren’t just not attending to the sheep, but Jeremiah tells us that the shepherds are destroying them. Ouch.

The God of Jeremiah proclaims this: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, oh you shepherds who have not shepherded, I will attend to your evil doings. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”

And who are the shepherds? As a priest, as a shepherd, as a leader, this is where I start to sweat. Certainly the religious leaders were included in this scathing critique, but Jeremiah and the prophets are never content to limit their critique to just the religious realm. No, the shepherds were all the leaders at every level throughout the nation, and we know this because Jeremiah speaks of that righteous Branch who will be raised up and who will reign as king and deal wisely and execute justice and righteousness in the land. Jeremiah talks of how Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell in safety. God is not just addressing individuals, but God is addressing the whole nation, most especially those who hold power of any kind at any level. God is not happy with the state of affairs in Israel or Judah.

Fast forward to today. We don’t have to look too far to see that sheep are scattered and many are lost. Many can’t find their way to green pastures of plenty, and still waters are a dream in many communities where violence is a daily occurrence. Plenty of souls are weary and in desperate need of reviving. And people can’t find the right pathway for all the barriers that stand in the way. It’s a mess out there. You know it. I know it. God knows it, and God is not happy as
God looks out over our land. And for those in leadership, God is especially not pleased. And here’s the rub, by virtue of our skin color, or education, or position, or financial resources, that is most of us in this room. God is not talking to some far off shepherds; God is talking to us. God needs to level us, bring us to our knees until we can own our complicity in the kind of shepherding that destroys the sheep, so that, so that, God can raise us up as the kind of shepherds who will remember that it’s all about the sheep. It’s interesting what God says, I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” I’ve always heard that “not fearing any longer, or being dismayed, nor shall any be missing” as applying solely to the sheep, but what if God is actually appealing to the heart of the shepherd, as well as appealing to the sheep? What if God is saying that God Godself will raise up shepherds who won’t be afraid to do right by the sheep, and that these shepherds won’t be dismayed—to be dismayed is to lose your courage because you are afraid—what if God is saying that the shepherds God will raise up won’t lose their courage, won’t lose their nerve, and that none of the shepherds will go missing, that all of us will show up as the empowered leaders and guides that God has made us, and called us, to be? Wouldn’t that be something for our land?

Okay, fast forward to Ephesians where all this gets worked out between groups that are engulfed in hostility. So, here, theGentiles (and remember, that’s like, us) are getting a little too puffed up, and the writer, either Paul or someone taught by Paul, reminds them that they were once on the outside looking in. They were once strangers to the covenants of promise, xenos, as in xenophobia, as in fear of the stranger, they were once those feared; they were once aliens, those literally alienated, estranged, from the commonwealth of Israel. And this sense of commonwealth is politeia in the greek, which is about the administration of civic affairs, which is about how we structure our society together, and is the same root that gives us the word “politics.” Oh, it’s all connected!

But back to Ephesians. These Gentiles, who held a lot of power in that society, were once “without hope, without God in the world,” Ephesians says. And there was hostility, animosity, enmity between those who are called “the circumcision” and those who were called “the uncircumcision.” How about that for a little biblical name calling—“the uncircumcision”—the ultimate “not us?” Who are “the us” and “the not us” today? Who are the binaries today? The two in opposition? Who are the groups engulfed in hostility? Well, circling back to Jeremiah, there’s the sheep and the shepherds. There are those at the economic top of the ladder and those who can’t get on the first rung. There’s management and worker. Citizen and undocumented. Black and white. Men and women. Gay and straight. Politician and constituent. Republican and Democrat. Liberal and Conservative. Urban and rural. Advocates of gun control and advocates of gun rights. There are the socially elite and those who don’t know what silverware to use when you get past a fork, knife, and spoon (and I’m in that camp). There are Christian, Jew, and Muslim. There are people of faith and professed atheists. And we could go on and on. Makes you kind of long for just two—“the circumcision” and“the uncircumcision.” When it’s all said and done, we can find a lot of ways to slice and dice the world into “the us” and “the not us.”

We could easily fall into a pit of despair; we could easily resign ourselves to this-is-just-the-way-it-is. But God needs us to be shepherds who can connect to sheep, and God needs us to be sheep who can connect to shepherds. And in Jesus, God has done an unbelievable new thing. Listen to Ephesians again: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostilitybetween us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizenswith the saints and also members of thehouseholdof God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Oh my gosh. Could we just meditate on all of this for the rest of the service today, or better yet, could we contemplate this for the rest of lives? Could we just try to live out this vision? Jesus, in his flesh, has broken down all the walls that divide us and has made both groups one. Jesus has opted for new vision of humanity—not one ruled by commandments and ordinances and societal norms and the way-things-have-always-been, but one in which “the us” and “the not us” both hear peace and know that they both belong. Jesus, on the cross, has put to death all hostility, reconciled all those things that can’t be reconciled, literally taken all of this hostility into his being, held it in love, and drained it of its power. Through this access point of total and complete NONVIOLENCE, Jesus has opened up the pathway for us to be one body, one family, one household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, built on the foundation of those prophets who have held us to a vision of righteousness, right relationship, at all levels of society and built on the foundation of those apostles who are sent to proclaim this unfathomable love who has put to death “the us” and “not us” so that a newstructure, a whole structure can be built from a solid foundation with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone—and that’s a sentence that St. Paul himself could be proud of. And this new humanity embodying new relationships as one body truly is the very dwelling place of God.

What a vision for each one of us! What a vision for our society! What a vision for the whole cosmos! And all we have to do to get there is hold all of our hostilities up to the cross and let them die there with arms outstretched. Are you willing to let your hostilities die? Are you willing to let all your “us’s” and “not us’s” go?

All we have to do to get there is to join Jesus in his complete and utter nonviolence.

All we have to do is let our vision be shaped by his and let him resurrect our lives, our systems, and our structures from this foundation where those who are far off and those who are nearall belong.

All we have to do is let ourselves join him in this new humanity where “us” and “not us” no longer mean anything, where strangers and aliens become citizens with the saints, where all have a stake in one another, and we function as a household where everyone belongs. Take this to heart and everything changes. Every circle we’re a part of, every system in which we participate, they change if this becomes our foundation.

But the change begins by realizing that the definitive breaking down of the walls between us has already been accomplished. Our task is to live into the reality that has already been established through Jesus. When will we start living as those who have already been reconciled to one another? It’s a lot easier to build up a new creation when you realize that the cornerstone has been set and the foundation is rock solid. Let your life be joined to this structure, and together, let us build the world anew. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 19, 2015

Welcome to the body of Christ!

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Sixth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 9); Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 Video

What a week in the life of our faith community! Monday morning saw Ann Smith cross over from this life to greater life as she joined the communion of saints. Monday afternoon, Jim Parnell underwent surgery to remove a melanoma from his intestine. Wednesday, Karl Doege had open-heart bypass surgery. And, this morning, we baptize Rex Charles and welcome him into the Body of Christ. From the cradle to the grave, we walk this journey together. We die together, we rise together, we sustain one another in times of sickness, we celebrate with one in times of joy—that’s what it means to be the church; that’s what it means to be the Body of Christ. And, we strengthen one another, we encourage one another, we challenge one another, we help each other hear the call from our Lord to be his Body in the world. Because Jesus is never content just to be his Body for his own sake; his Body was, is, and always will be, a Body offered to the world.

Today’s scriptures focus our attention on that piece of our work and call. Ezekiel reminds us that God’s got something to say to the world, and more often than not, God’s going to use us to say it. The prophet’s call—it may not be comfortable, but there is a piece of our work that is most definitely prophetic. And this isn’t so much about proclaiming this position or that position; it’s more about the capacity to hold before people’s eyes that tragic gap between the kingdom of God as God envisions it and longs for it to be and the reality of the world as we have constructed it through our choices and actions, individually and collectively. It’s the gap between the values we aspire to and the values we are actually practicing. God longs to close that gap, and it’s the prophets who voice that holy longing in the nitty gritty stuff of life.

In a world that focuses so much on getting to the top and status and position, St. Paul reminds us that power is made perfect in weakness and that God’s grace is sufficient. There is something about vulnerability that allows God’s power to shine all the more radiantly. There is a certain strength to be found when all you have left to do is surrender yourself to the mercy and grace of God. None of us goes to this place willingly, but when you are taken to this place, you discover the incredible depth and power of a love and grace that will not let you go, ever.

And then, Mark’s gospel picks up this prophetic theme and our call out into the world. Jesus is teaching the hometown crowd. On the one hand, they are astounded by his wisdom and the deeds of power being done by his hands. On the other hand, he’s just the hometown boy; they know him, and they can’t square what they are seeing with what they know. Sometimes, the perceptions we’ve formed of people place this box around them, and they can only stretch so far. Have you ever experienced being boxed in? What’s that feel like? (pause) It’s pretty confining and limiting. Even Jesus felt the constraint of their definitions of who he was and what he could do. He could do no deeds of power there. The only thing he could do was lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. And why could the sick receive his power? (pause) Quite simply, because they were open to it—they were willing to let their preconceived notions go and simply trust in the power. But the rest of that hometown crowd, Jesus was amazed at that their unbelief, amazed at their lack of trust.

So, if you can’t get a hearing in your hometown, or wherever the boxes are boxing you in, go where you can. So, Jesus went about the villages teaching, and he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and he told them to travel light, really light. In fact, they didn’t have much of anything—just a staff to lean on; no bread, no bag, no money, not an extra tunic, totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers.

Is that how you like to travel? Not me. That doesn’t sound like much to go on. But there were some things that Jesus did give them in addition to that staff to lean on, and they are no small things. First, Jesus gave them authority, exousia, POWER. Even Jesus knew that it wasn’t about him, but it was about God in him; Jesus knew that it wasn’t his power, but that it was God’s power working in him and through him. Whatever power and authority had been given to Jesus, he now gave to the twelve.

And this same power and authority is given fully and completely in baptism—yep, it’s all given, right now, today, to Rex—not even a year old! All that power and authority is given fully and completely in baptism; it’s just that we spend our lifetime figuring out what to do with it.

And this power and authority is tethered to a core identityyou are God’s beloved and in you, God is well-pleased. And around that core identity is woven a set of rock-solid practices that will sustain you, encourage you, shape you, challenge you, call you, guide you. Rex, this is what we are doing today—we are calling forth the identity that God has already given you as a beloved Son, and we are lifting up the values and practices that will help you mind the gap that just seems to be part of the warp and weft of being human. These baptismal vows:

  • Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers;

  • Persevering in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord;

  • Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;

  • Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself;

  • Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being;

these baptismal vows will guide you as you endeavor to live as a beloved Son of God; they will help flesh out your prophetic call; they will show you the paradox of power that is made perfect in weakness; they well help you see the wells of grace that are all around you; they will help you travel lightly in this world and allow you to focus on what truly matters; they will help you steward the awesome power and authority that God is granting you this very day.

And you thought you were just getting wet.

No, it is an awesome thing we gather to witness today, and it is most definitely the power of God through the Holy Spirit who is doing the acting. The ritual actions may be performed by human beings, but it’s God who is doing the acting.

In addition to power and authority, Jesus gave the twelve something else. Any guesses? (pause) Jesus gave them each otherthey went out two by two… they were to stay in the house where they would be welcomed—we don’t do any of this work outside of relationships with others. We are not meant to be Lone Rangers as we go about this enterprise of dealing with the unclean spirits that are active in our world—and their name truly is legion—many. And correct me if I’m wrong, but even the Lone Ranger had a sidekick anyway. We are meant to do this together.

So, Rex, as you grow, and as you go to do the hard and joyous work of proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, as you make it your mission to help everyone know that they are God’s beloved, and as you help them understand what it means to live as a beloved, you need to know, we’ve got your back. And in those moments when you doubt that, ask your parents and godparents to tell you about this community and what this community did for each another the week you were baptized—we prayed someone over as they died, we prayed two people through hard surgeries, we prayed over you as the Spirit knit you into the Body of Christ. Cradle to grave—we’ve got your back.

And from that infinitely secure place, we teach each other how to steward the power you, too, are given this day. We teach each other how to move into the world with authority. We help each other have the courage to dare to speak for God, and we dare to believe that God’s power really can flow through us. We dare to believe, that in the power of God, we can close the gaps in this world that are swallowing people whole.

So Rex, you are in for a wild, wild ride. You will die more times than you can imagine, but you will rise that many more. There will be rough patches along the way, but there will also be times of unadulterated bliss. And through it all, we will remind you, always, that you are God’s beloved Son, and you always have us.

Welcome to the Body of Christ and to a life that can teach you how to travel lightly, and yet, at the same time, be so incredibly, abundantly full. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

July 5, 2015

People who matter to Jesus

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 8); Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Lamentations 3:21-33; II Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43 Video

So, last week, Jesus was crossing the Sea of Galilee, and this week, he has crossed it again. When he gets out of the boat, a crowd is immediately around him. Jesus is a magnet for people; there’s just no escaping it. Then, one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and he begged him for help. Jesus’ relationship with traditional religious leadership is sometimes good and sometimes not so good, so it seems really significant that a leader of the synagogue would seek out this itinerant teacher. What would make a religious leader of Jairus’ position, with all the status that entailed, do such a thing? I’ll tell you what—his little 12-year old girl was sick, really sick, at the point of death, and when your child is sick, you’ll do anything—forget position, forget status, forget looking crazy or like a fool—a sick child will bring you to your knees; you’ll do anything for your child. Jairus had heard about this healer; it was a longshot, but longshots are what you do at that moment—“Jesus, please, just come lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, sozo, whole, and live.” And Jesus went with him.

But the crowd was large, and that crowd followed Jesus, and they pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering hemorrhages for twelve years. She kept losing blood, and she had been to doctor after doctor. She had endured much, and she had spent all that she had. She couldn’t get better, and in fact, she got worse. Twelve years of hemorrhages—that’s exhausting; that sucks the life out of you; that takes every ounce of your energy. No doubt she suffered despair and depression every time she tried an avenue of treatment that then failed dashing her hopes. It was amazing that she had any energy left to pursue wellness at all. The fact that she had been to so many doctors indicates that this was a women with means, but all the money in the world couldn’t keep her from losing blood. She had tried everything that medicine could offer her; she was at the end of her rope. Chronic illness will bring you to your knees; it was a longshot, but she had heard about Jesus, and she just had a sense—“If I just touch his clothes, I will be made well, sozo, whole. “Sozo”—that’s the root that gives us the word “salvation”—it’s about being healed and made whole.

Well, the woman came up behind him and touched his cloak, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Jesus understand energy and power, and he knew that power had just gone forth from him. He started scanning the crowd, “Who touched me?”

The disciples, all they could see was a sea of bodies, and they were like, “Really Jesus? Look around; there are people everywhere, how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

But Jesus knew some exchange had happened—power had gone out of him which meant power had been received somewhere else. He looked all around to see who had done it; he looked all around to see in whom had that power landed.

The woman knew. She knew what had happened to her, and she wanted to disappear, stay silent, run away; she was afraid. And why? Because in that time, in that religious culture, a woman with a flow of blood was ritually impure, and if she touched a man in that state, she made him impure. Big no-no. She had reason to be afraid to step forward, but when that wholeness takes over in you, you can face your deepest fears. She was shaking, but she came forward and fell down before him and told him the whole truth—every last bit of it—which meant she also shared with him all the pain of twelve years of suffering and disappointment and exhaustion.

She probably expected to be chastised, called down, shamed—but that’s not what she got. “Daughter”—oh my goodness, she had been isolated in every way imaginable for twelve years—as the Common English Bible notes, “She had suffered physically, emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually,” but the hardest had been the sheer isolation that came with her particular chronic illness—so, to be called “Daughter?” Oh my, how healing is that? “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” “Your faith, your trust, has made you well, sozo, whole; go in peace.” And this word for “peace” isn’t the typical “shalom” that we normally see, but it’s a different word for “peace”—it has “a sense of tranquility and quiet and rest and harmony that open the way to feeling safe and secure”—that’s the best news ever when you are completely exhausted and drained. “Daughter, go forth in this peace and be healed of your disease; be restored from this affliction” and with those words, Jesus knit that woman back into the fabric of community.

Meanwhile, Jairus is waiting. Wow, what must have been going through his head as he watched all of this? “What about my daughter, what about my daughter?!?” right alongside, “Wow, this guy is the real deal” which could only fuel his hope. But while Jesus was still talking, some people came from the Jairus’ house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”

But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, don’t be afraid, trust, trust.”

Jesus, always skittish of the sensational, allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, it was a crazy scene—people weeping and wailing, a huge commotion.

When he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making such a commotion? The child is not dead but sleeping.”

And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. That word for “amazement” is rich—“eksestame”—it has this sense of “being thrown out of position, displaced, thrown into wonderment, being amazed and astounded; it puts you out of your mind.” In other words, it completely reorients you. Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. Jesus wasn’t about the flash-in-the-pan; he was about waking up those who seem dead, he was about healing and restoring to wholeness, and reorienting lives; he was about feeding deep, deep hungers.

These healings are wild, and they shake us up. When your child is sick, you long for them to be well. When you suffer from chronic illness, you long to be made well. These accounts always raise the question, if Jesus did this for them, why doesn’t he always do it for us, and how do we make sense of it when people trust Jesus with everything they’ve got, and they do everything to touch his cloak, or surrender to him, and the child dies, or the illness doesn’t get better. I don’t know the answer to that.

But I also am not willing to explain these healings away—that might be the easier way because then we don’t have to deal with all the feelings that come when the cure doesn’t occur, but that feels like a diminishment of the divine power that flowed through Jesus, and that’s an awfully high price to pay to get all of this healing stuff sorted out in a way that my little brain can handle, and control. No, I’d rather allow for the mystery of that power to be there, and then wrestle with the ache that comes when things don’t work out the way I wish they would.

So, let’s let Jesus’ power stand, just as it is. Let’s let these healings displace us, throw us out of position. Let’s let these healings fill us with wonderment; let’s be astounded; let’s let them short out our minds.

And, let’s grapple with some pieces in these stories that we might have overlooked. That woman is hemorrhaging, losing blood, her life-force is draining away, and it’s been draining away for twelve years. There are lots of ways to have your life-force drain away. Where are you losing life? Where is your life draining away, slipping through your fingers? Where are you feeling exhausted and isolated and cut-off? Where are you feeling not well, un-whole? How many avenues have you been down trying to find that wholeness? What wholeness are you yearning to know? Maybe you can’t even form words around your need, but you don’t have to. Can you just risk touching his cloak? Can you trust that there is some power in him that really can flow to you, and that that power can make you whole in ways that will bring you peace and restore you and knit you back into a web of relationships where you can thrive?

Can you lay aside all your positions and status and identities and bring before Jesus your most vulnerable need, that place where you know you have no control and only longing? Can you trust that Jesus’ power is abundant, and that your need is worthy of his attention? Can you see that some things are not really dead, but only asleep, just waiting to be awakened? Can you risk the displacement that comes when that which you thought was dead really does wake up?

As we marvel at the woman who is healed from the flow of blood, as we stand in wonderment at Jairus’ little girl who wakes up, can we imagine Jesus healing us in all those places where we just aren’t well, all those places that so need to be made whole?

It never was just about that woman, or Jairus, or his little girl. It’s about our need to touch his cloak; it’s about our need to surrender our position and status and lay our needs naked before our Lord; it’s about our need to be awakened from our sleep and brought back into the fullness of life.

The crowd pressing in on Jesus might be large, and it might feel impossible, but that woman mattered to Jesus, Jairus mattered to Jesus, his little girl mattered to Jesus, and so do you. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 28, 2015

Storms now and then

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 7); Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41 Video

I grew up on the Ohio River, and I’m a river rat at heart. I love the water, but I have a good, healthy respect for its power—my father taught me that. And I have been caught in some fierce storms. I’ve been on a 40-foot houseboat when it got caught in a whirlpool. I have seen sunny days turn to raging storms in the blink of an eye. The only time my dad ever got angry with me for making a really stupid choice was when I didn’t read the clouds right and got caught out on the river in a severe thunderstorm. The force of the wind bent the trees all the way down to the water as I brought our ski boat back up the creek. He was angry with me, but beneath all that anger was full-on fear. He knew what wind and water could do. He understood the sheer force and power they held; they were not to be messed with.

And I have been on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. We crossed it at sunset one night, and it was gorgeous, beautiful, peaceful. But that body of water sits down in a bowl and is surrounded by mountains. We were told that fierce storms can blow up, just like that, with huge waves. Those first followers of Jesus were fishermen, so they knew daggone well what could happen to their boat.

Jesus had been teaching the crowds all day from a boat just a little bit out from the shore, and when evening came, he said to the disciples, “Let’s go across to the other side.” So, they left the crowd behind on the shore and set off across the water. The wind started to blow, hard, and the waves grew larger, and those waves were pummeling the boat. Pretty soon, the boat was getting swamped, and they were fighting for their life.

And where is Jesus in all this? He’s in the stern, on a cushion, asleep.

The disciples woke him up, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” He woke up, and he rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. A dead calm. The greek describes it as “a great calm,” “a spacious calm,” and when that greek word is speaking of natural events, “a violent calm, a mighty calm, a strong calm.”

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with, oh, the NRSV translates it as “great awe,” which is that kind of total awe and deep reverence that come together when you witness power and majesty. It’s that feeling of awe and respect I feel when I witness the power of a storm. And it’s especially that awe and reverence you feel when you have witnessed the power and majesty of God. But the grammatical construction can also be translated this way: “and they were filled with fear, like really fear; great, big, crazy fear” and they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him; who then is this, that even the wind and the sea listen to him?”


Powerful storms. Crazy wind. Powerful waves. Cross-currents that can destroy your little boat. And they were just trying to get to the other side. Could there be a better story to capture what we are feeling in the wake of the shootings Wednesday night at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina?

African-Americans just trying to get to the other side to a life where they and their families can live in safety and thrive and worship and pray. And their boats are getting swamped by waves of hate and violence, and pummeled by a perfect storm of winds that blow from places of deep-seated, systemic racism, enhanced by a culture of violence, supported by privilege that is blind to how bad the storm really is.

And those of us whose skin is white, many of us mean well, and we’re just trying to get to the other side, trying to understand these currents that seem so much bigger than us, and our boats, we’re caught in this storm, too. Our boat is sinking, too. Every time hate unleashes itself, we’re all wounded.

And somehow, the people who perpetrate this violence, who spew this hate, who are so consumed with fear of the other, they are in a boat, too. I don’t buy the mental-illness argument or the this-man-was-working-alone, this-is-an-isolated-incident argument. As one commentator said, “This young man was wearing patches representing South Africa in the apartheid era and Rhodesia”—according to the Anti-Defamation League, both symbols of white supremacy. Tell me, what typical white 21 year old in America just happens to know the flag of Rhodesia. You are taught such things. Dylann Roof says he did not grow up in a racist family or environment, but there are other powerful forces that shape us. He learned this somewhere. This hate is taught, and it has been taught for generations—sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, but taught all the same.

And the hard truth is—we are in the boat being pummeled, AND we are a part of the storm itself. When we lack the courage to do the hard work, and to be in the hard conversations, and to examine, fearlessly, how this whole system has benefitted those of us whose skin is white, then we are a part of the storm. And the storm is swamping us, and we’re all drowning.

 “Teacher, wake-up, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

 “Peace! Be still!”

 “Waves of hate and violence, winds of racism, culture of violence, privilege—I am AWAKE” says the LORD—“Peace! Be still!” Remember our lesson from earlier; remember that passage from Job? Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwindGod is calling to us through this storm, and the LORD commands this insanity to STOP!

And in the moment of dead calm that follows, in this great, spacious, violent, mighty, strong calm that follows—we might feel awe, but we might also feel a lot of fear, because in this calm, we are going to have to put our oars in the water and start working our tails off to get to the other side. You see, I think this calm is really scary because as long as the storm is raging, and you’re just trying to keep from sinking, you don’t have time or energy to see anything else; you don’t have time or energy to understand the root causes of the racism that is a cancer in our country’s soul; all you might have energy for is casting blame in somebody else’s direction. As long as the storm is raging, we can only see the one incident in front of us; we can only see as far as the discrete bucket of water that we’re trying to bail out of our boat to keep from sinking altogether.

No, Jesus demands more of us. He is calling US to PEACE. He is calling US to BE STILL. He is going to give us enough calm to look at all these forces in the clear light of day and to understand our part in them. He is calling us to work hard to get to the other side because the kingdom awaits us on that shore. Jesus is longing for us to get out of our little boats and join together on that shore— ONE people, ONE family, ONE bread, ONE body.

Maybe this power that we see Jesus display scares us to death because somewhere, deep inside, we know, as those who have been baptized into Christ’s body—we know that he has given US this same power. The world may well be looking at us, “You Jesus people, don’t you care that we are perishing???” It’s time for us to WAKE-UP. It’s time for us to stare straight into these storms raging in our country; it’s time for us to dare to proclaim with all the majesty and power of God, “PEACE! BE STILL!”

And then, we’ve got to commit to the disciplined, long, gritty, hard, painstaking work to get to the other side because in a dead calm, sitting back and letting your sail do the work won’t take you anywhere. No, this is going to involve US, our whole being, and it’s going to be work. And our salvation, our wholeness, depends on it.

As long as African-Americans can’t live their lives in peace and joy and without fear of violence, then neither can we; we are ONE body. If they are wounded, so are we; we are ONE body. And as ONE body—we die together, we rise together, we cry together, we rejoice together. We won’t be whole until we understand how to live as ONE body.

So, how do we get there? Well, I don’t know the whole way, but I do know some next steps.

Yesterday, Pastor Reggie Hunt, the African-American pastor of Cornerstone Church, called me to get together at 8:45 this morning with other pastors to pray and share communion before heading to our services. Between our two services, I hustled over to his church at Hardin Park to be a part of that. We, as pastors, are meeting for coffee this week to talk about how to lead our people in this time, and to talk about our own feelings. Trust me, a church shooting strikes fear in all of our hearts. We will be calling all of our people to come together for a time of prayer in the very near future.

So, step onePRAY. Pray in your own prayers for our country and that the racism that infects our hearts and the heart of our country may be transformed into a force for love. And, wherever and whenever you can, pray together, across races, across traditions.

Step two—we have to WAKE-UP. Attend the Unlearning Racism Dialogue Series—the next meeting is Tuesday night at the ASU Student Union. If you can’t make that, find something to read that will help you deepen your own consciousness on this; better yet, find an African-American to mentor you and hold you accountable in this work.

Step threethink of one African-American person that you can call this week just to tell them that you are thinking about them and praying for them. Is that a vulnerable thing to do, you bet, but will it make a profound difference in that person’s life, absolutely. Our African-American friends and neighbors need to know that we are thinking about them, praying for them, and that we are committed to this work.

Step fourbe fearless in entering conversations about race and racism. I know this is vulnerable; I feel intensely vulnerable every time I enter this arena. But I also know, as a white person with a whole lot of privilege, I can opt in and out of this work, I can move in and out of this arena—African-Americans don’t have that luxury; they are never not in the arena. We need to stay in the arena.

Step five—if you want to understand the depth and power of forgiveness that is necessary for the work ahead of us; if you want to see what a Christian witness of such forgiveness looks like, go out on the internet and watch what the families of those who died said to Dylann Roof at his first hearing on Friday.

Beyond these first steps, I don’t know the rest of the way, but I do know that if we step out on this path, Jesus will guide is in the Way we are to go. The qualities that St. Paul names today are good ones to cultivate: purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God. This is kingdom work, and it will take every ounce of courage that we, with God’s help, can muster.

I want to leave us with St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, but hear them now addressed to us: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians, we have spoken frankly to you St. Lukans; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return…open wide your hearts also.”


            BE STILL!”

                        “Why are you still afraid?”

                                    The only way to the other side is to“open your heart wide.”


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 21, 2015

A time of change

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Third Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 6); Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; II Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Okay, God is good. There is a lot going on in our hearts today, and all our texts bring us exactly what we need.

And we might as well head straight into the energy in the room. So, if you didn’t read your email, Friday afternoon, I sent out word that Ted, our beloved Organist and Choir Director, will be leaving us early this fall. Ted has been in discernment with me since late February, and there is something calling him, some invitation to lean more fully into the fullness of his life and being. Some “yes” has been stirring inside of him, yearning to be expressed, and I applaud him for hearing that whisper and following. That takes tremendous courage and reminds us of the work that all of us are to be about all of the time—listening to and heeding the Spirit’s stirrings.

And what this means for us is that big scary word—“CHANGE”—Ted has been with us for 12 ½ years, and this comes on the heels of saying our goodbyes last Sunday to Sarah Miller, our Coordinator for Children and Youth—that’s two of our six core staff—that’s like 1/3 of our team. As I said to the Sr. Warden last Sunday afternoon, “What is God doing?”—not in a bad way, but really, something is in the air; God is stirring things up a bit, which brings out my curiosity—what is the Spirit doing?

How wonderful that we are going to have a real-life case study, right before our eyes, in the dynamics of change. And while this is a communal case-study, I think all of this applies to change at a personal level in our own individual lives.

So, how many of us just relish living through change? My reptilian brain registers change this way: uncomfortable, unsettling, opportunity for anxiety; I can easily go into Lost in Space mode—“danger, Will Robinson, danger!” But there is this deeper place inside of me that leaps just a bit—change is also exciting, full of possibility and opportunity, and perhaps, most importantly, it takes us to our knees and calls us forward in absolute trust and faith. If control is our thing, if we approach life like the game of whack-a-mo—just keep knocking down those things that pop up until you get them all back in their boxes (which never happens, by the way)—if control and whack-a-mo are our thing, then this season is going to call us out of our comfort zone and into a space of openness and trust, expectancy and attentiveness. We are about to get a really good spiritual workout as a community.

Now then, there are some things that I am aware of right off the bat. First, SCARCITY is a big temptation. Ted, you are truly one-of-a-kind, and we will not be able to replace you. You are so gifted as a musician, and so rich in your person. The voice of SCARCITY could call pretty loudly, “You won’t find another Ted. We are in a somewhat isolated region; there just aren’t other talented organists out there who can do what we will need them to do.” And like that crafty serpent last week, some parts of that SCARCITY voice are speaking truth—we won’t find another Ted, but also like that crafty serpent, that’s not the whole truth.

We hear in Ezekiel of a God who plants twigs, in order that it might produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar…That God says, “I the LORD have spoken; and I will accomplish it.” We don’t know what God has planted that is about to bear fruit in our midst, but we can absolutely trust that God will accomplish it—we don’t have to force this, nor do we have to settle because SCARCITY is telling us that what we want will be impossible to find. God, through Ezekiel’s mouth, is calling us on that one with that audacious proclamation, “I the LORD will accomplish it.” And if that message falls on deaf ears, then remember what the angel said to Mary when she doubted, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And if that doesn’t get through, then listen to what Jesus tells his disciples when it felt impossible to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” SCARCITY doesn’t like such audacious hope.

And then there’s the psalmist who proclaims: “It is a good thing to sing praises to your Name…To tell of your loving-kindness early in the morning and of your faithfulness in the night season; on the psaltery, and on the lyre, and to the melody of the harp. For you have made me glad by your acts, O LORD; and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.” Okay, even like 3,000 years ago, different styles of music were appreciated and the capacity to sing praises was celebrated—God loves a breadth and depth of praise, and God knows how hard we have worked in this congregation to get to the range of music that we enjoyGod will provide what we need to keep sinking our roots deep in the soil of music that lifts our hearts and opens our souls in ways that words just can’t do on their own. And even if we have a little night season until the “what’s-coming” arrives, we can trust in God’s faithfulness. We’ve just got to keep singing of God’s loving-kindness early in the morning and trusting in that faithfulness in the night.

And if our confidence gets shaky, well, St. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul is there to lift us up, daring to proclaim: “We are always confident…for we walk by faith, not be sight.” And he goes on to talk about the love of Christ which urges us on and about how dying with Christ and rising with him changes everything—“We regard no one from a human point of view,” Paul says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Fear, scarcity, anxiety—these are the old way. But we live as a new creation founded on hope and joy and possibility and life. And nowhere has our new creation-ness been more manifested than in the work we have done as a community with regards to music. This past week I made a list; in our worship, we embrace some 18 different styles of music—that’s a new creation. Over the years, we have moved beyond “personal preferences” to a deeper communal commitment to learning to love things that speak to our neighbor’s devotional heart, even if they aren’t quite our thing. We are musically integrated as a community, and you can feel the life in our worship because of it.

Yes, we will all experience a death of sorts, every loss is a death of sorts—and Ted, your going is indeed a profound loss to us all. But the loss is never the end of the story; death never has the final word—not in the Christian rhythm. No, God is already at work, calling us ever deeper into this new creation; we just need to let go of our human point of view in order to see it.

And then there are the parables from Mark—good stuff for today! Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Okay, a few things here. Jesus goes to his favorite narrative style, the parable. Scholars agree that the parable is a really distinct style whose purpose is to subvert our normal way of seeing the world. They are full of paradox; they are meant to provoke us; to turn us upside down; to shake our worldview. And they don’t lend themselves to pat interpretations, which is why that bit the narrator tacks on at the end about explaining everything in private to the disciples doesn’t ring quite true to how Jesus worked. That bit about “as they were able to hear it” absolutely rings true.

Jesus goes to the parable whenever he is trying to get us to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God“it is like…it is like…it is like…” Which means, we can’t nail down this “kingdom of God”—it is bigger than our definitions, bigger than our brains can pin down; there is no wrapping the kingdom of God up in a box, duly labelling it, and setting it on a shelf to collect dust. Parables are living, breathing things—they call us out of our comfort zone and into a strange land. They tend to resonate with the heart, sort of like music, and we have to dwell in the land of imagination to begin to touch their creative and redemptive potential.

So, these two parables we are given today—“the seed that is scattered and which sprouts and grows, we don’t know how” and “the mustard seed, that teeny-tiny seed that when sown grows up and becomes a great shrub, putting forth large branches, so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With both of these seeds, there is something wonderfully mysterious germinating and growing, hidden away in the earth, that grows into something wonderful and lifegiving.

In large part, our job is to trust the germination process, to get out of the way and trust the growth process at work; our job is not to force things, but to be open and attentive so that we can see when it’s time for the sickle and the harvest, so that we can trust and recognize thatsomething with tremendous capacity to hold all the life that is in our midst will indeed come from a very small and hidden seed.

The voice of SCARCITY“we won’t ever find the right person;” and the voice of COMPARISON—“they won’t be Ted,” will absolutely cloud our sight, rob of us of joyful expectation, and prevent us from being attentive to the seed that is already growing somewhere deep in the earth. And that seed that is hidden and growing is just waiting for a moment such as this and a community such as this,      just waiting to break ground and stretch out his or her boughs and offer his or her unique gifts that we might continue to nest and rest in the beauty of the glorious music that feeds our souls week in and week out.

The Spirit is moving in this place—there are too many people opening up to “yes’s” and possibilities for it to be otherwise. We just don’t quite know where that Spirit is leading us or what’s ahead, but the soil is rich      and God is faithful and seeds are growing even as we speak.

It’s all good, or as Julian of Norwich says so much more poetically, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well”—for Ted and for St. Luke’s. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 14, 2015

You are God’s Beloved: Believe this and it will change the world

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Second Sunday after Pentecost—Year B (Proper 5); Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Oh, I have been itching for this passage from Genesis 3 for 2 years; I have been waiting patiently for it to show up in the lectionary ever since I heard Episcopal Priest and theologian, Jay Johnson, speak on it at the Wild Goose Festival summer of 2013. So, let’s set the stage.

God has created the heavens and earth; the day and the night; God has separated the waters above from the waters below with a dome called sky; God has gathered the waters into the seas making space for the dry land; God has created plants of every kind, the sun and the moon, swarms of living creatures, birds of the air, creeping things, and humankind—male and female in God’s very own image; And God called all these things “good,” and finally, God created sabbath, holy rest. Here endeth Genesis 1.

Genesis 2 unfolds with a different version of creation. Here we have the dust of the ground—adamah—and a stream of water springing up and watering the earth. Then the LORD God formed the human—a-dam—from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.

And the Lord God commanded the human (and listen close here), “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then God figures out that it’s not good for the human to be alone—that the human needs a helpmate, a partner, and so God sets about creating animals to keep a-dam company, but there was not found a helper as a-dam’s partner. Then, we get the whole deep sleep, take a rib, create another who is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” and it is at this point that we get the distinction of ish and ishahman and woman—the hebrew moves from a-dam—the living human being—to ish and ishah, man and woman. And they were both naked and not ashamed. Here endeth Genesis 2.

Then we come to Genesis 3 and that crafty serpent.The serpent said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman replied, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”

But the serpent said to the woman, “You won’t die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Well, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Why are they hiding? (pause)

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Okay menfolk, how do you handle this? “Uh, the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Oh, it’s the classic double blame—not only is this the woman’s fault, it’s also God’s fault for giving the man the woman in the first place

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”

Women, whatcha gonna do? The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” Oh, the classic pass-the-buck blame game. Well played.

And so, the Lord God curses the serpent, and the formerly upright serpent goes horizontal doomed to crawl on its belly all the days of its life with dust for dinner (though it is interesting to think about the serpent ingesting that constituent part of creation itself—it all began with dust, right?—hmmm). Here ends the passage for today.

So, what’s at stake in these passages? EVERYTHING! Partly because, thanks to Augustine, the interpretation of these passages gave Western Christianity a starting place of original sin and “the fall,” instead of original goodness and blessing, as Matthew Fox named it. But even without Augustine’s spin, how you handle these passages sets the course for everything else that will come after, which is the whole sweep of salvation history, and this is where Jay Johnson turned my theological world upside down and right-side up.

Johnson contends that Genesis 3 is a story about shame, and that shame is actually the original wound. We can tell that shame is involved for a couple of reasons. First, in that culture, nakedness was taboo—people experienced shame around nakedness. And, once the man and woman’s eyes are opened, they are afraid, they know they are naked, they hide, and they start trying to cover themselves (sewing fig leaves together and making loincloths), and cover their tracks (by blaming someone else)—all classic shame responses. Brené Brown has noted that “blame is just a way to discharge discomfort and pain…and anger.” Next time you catch yourself playing the blame game, try and see what’s beneath the pain you’re trying to discharge; what is it that you are trying to cover up?

But Johnson takes this even deeper. He goes all the way back to the original temptation. How did the serpent tempt the woman? (pause) The woman internalized that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desired to make one wise. But Johnson has picked up on something else. The serpent tells the woman, “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

Sidebar—did you notice that the serpent prefaces all of this by playing the scarcity card—“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” That’s not what God said! What did God say? (pause) “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, except this one for in the day you eat of that one, you shall die.” The serpent takes God’s “freely” and “every, except one” and turns it into a “you can’t eat from any”—that’s SCARCITY!

But Jay Johnson sees one more thing that changes everything. The serpent tempts the woman by telling her that if she eats of this fruit, she will be like God. Johnson notes, the original temptation was our believing that being human wasn’t enough.

Shame is our original wound in response to this original temptation that being human isn’t enough—we thought we had to be like God to be enough.

Johnson goes on to say that we have interpreted this passage down through the ages in terms of original sin, for which the antidote is forgiveness, but if you read this passage in terms of the original wound of shame, the antidote for shame is not forgivenessthe antidote for shame is always unconditional love. And that’s when my mind and heart went ka-boom!

It changes everything. If we think this core story is about our sin for which God has to forgive us then that colors how we read the whole rest of the story of salvation.

But if we think about this in terms of thinking our humanity, a humanity that God created and proclaimed good not 2 pages before,            if we think about this in terms of our believing our humanity isn’t enough, and the shame that always comes with any “I’m not enough” message, coupled with a good dose of scarcity, then the only thing that will save us, that will make us whole, is unconditional love.

And then the whole story of the relationship between God and God’s people becomes one of God trying to help us understand that our humanity is enough, that it is good, and that God loves us unconditionally.    Wow! Read the rest of the bible through that lens and see what happens—it truly becomes the story of salvation, the story of how we are made whole.

And maybe this key unlocks one other puzzle today—that weird and oddly hopeful thing in the Gospel of Mark. It’s this scene where Jesus has been healing and the crowd is pressing in on him, and his family wants to come and restrain him because people are saying he’s mad, and the Jerusalem scribes are saying that he’s casting out demons by the power of Beezebul—the ruler of the demons. At one point, Jesus says this: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

What is this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I’ve always wondered about that; it sounds pretty intense.

To blaspheme is to show disrespect. Interestingly enough, blasphemy shares the same root in Latin and Greek with the word “blame.” Martin Smith defines blasphemy against the Holy Spirit this way: “…A profound spiritual blindness and perversity, which dares to attribute the giving of health and freedom by Jesus not to the Holy Spirit, but to the powers of evil”—it’s calling something that is good, evil.

But let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism—there the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” and let’s think about this new way of looking at Genesis 3—maybe blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the refusal to believe that YOU are God’s beloved, and that in YOU, God is well pleased; maybe it’s taking this creation that God shaped, formed, instilled with the divine image, breathed life into, and called good; maybe it’s refusing to believe in this goodness, refusing to believe that you are enough, and instead, believing you are somehow defective. It is disrespectful to the Creator to call the beloved creation defective.

Why can’t the one who blasphemes have forgiveness? Because we’re not talking about the sin-forgiveness equation; we’re talking about the shame-unconditional love equation. And guilty of an eternal sin? If you fundamentally refuse to believe that you are worthy of God’s love, you will experience yourself as perpetually cutoff, separated from God and everyone else.

Throughout Jesus’ life, with every fiber of his being, with every word from his mouth, with every healing touch of his hand, with arms outstretched on the cross, from the empty tomb, he is crying out for us to hear—“YOU are God’s beloved; in YOU God is well pleased. Believe in this. Trust this. Live this. Love from this. It will change everything. It will change you and all your relationships. It will change the world.” And to his mother and brothers and sisters, Jesus says, “If you try to restrain my proclamation of this truth, then you haven’t grasped what it means to live in God beloved family.”

That serpent was crafty, but there are a thousand and one voices telling us every day that we are not enough. Entire industries are built on convincing us that we need something else to make us whole. We don’t.

            God created us; God proclaimed us good. We are God’s beloved; God delights in us.

Are you going to own your inherent worth as God’s beloved, just as you are, OR are you going to try to overreach and overcompensate and spend a whole lot of energy trying to prove yourself worthy?

How you answer this question will dictate how the story flows.

Your worth has already been determined; don’t try to earn what has so graciously been given. Dare to believe that you really are God’s beloved. Let your actions spring from that well, and see how everything changes.

You have nothing to lose, except shame and blame and fear and resentment, and you have everything to gain—a sense of belonging that is infinitely secure,     the joy of being enough with nothing to prove—only love to breathe in, and love to extend, unconditionally. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

June 7, 2015

Differentiation, the Trinity and Rites of Passage

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Trinity Sunday—Year B; Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday and our Rite of Passage for 13-year olds—what a day! And I think these two occasions actually illuminate each other.

The Bishop wrote about Trinity Sunday in his weekly reflection this past Wednesday. He quoted St. Augustine who said, “If you don’t believe in the Trinity, you will lose your soul. But if you try to understand it, you will lose your mind.” Bishop Taylor went on to say that “at its heart it is a paradox: three in one; one in three,” and yet, “it’s crucial that we hold onto the Trinity for a lot of reasons, chief among these reasons is that it keeps us from idolatry. God is not a thing. God cannot be another person that we can easily name.” Bishop Taylor goes on to note that “what we can say is this—at the heart of God is relationship.” He concludes, “Therefore the way to celebrate Trinity Sunday is not to think our way through this mystery (Augustine had a point). Instead we celebrate Trinity Sunday by deepening our relationships with one another and with all of creation.”

I think Bishop Taylor is right. The Trinity is the essence of mystery; we can’t comprehend it with our minds, but we can gaze upon it and recognize it and intuit that it is true. What is the nature of God? Our minds can’t fathom it, but our hearts leap forward with the answer—it is love, it is relationship, it is giving and receiving, it is filling and spilling over, it is participating in the dance, it is being in the flow. And all of this energy within God and throughout all of creation spins round and round generating life and power, helping what is living to find life in dying, helping what is dying to be born anew. It bends our minds, but our hearts and our spirits know that when we touch this, we are touching the essence of reality. It is not that the Trinity is too complicated a doctrine to unravel; it’s that the Trinity is too big a truth for that rational part in our left brains to comprehend. The Trinity will ask more of us than assent; the Trinity asks us to join the dance, to participate, to be all in.


The Trinity also illuminates what lifegiving relationship actually looks like. Each member of the Trinity is fully at home in their own unique being, and yet, is fully available to be connected in relationship. In the traditional language, the Father doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the Son who doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the Spirit, and yet, they all share the same divine DNA. They each bring something wonderful and unique to the table, but it is in the giving and receiving of the gift that the really good stuff gets generated. This is the essence of healthy and lifegiving differentiation. When I do premarital counseling, I often recommend the book Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch. He does a great job unpacking just what this differentiation looks like. Most of us see differentiation on a continuum with emotional connection, with each of these holding down the one of the end(s).




But he says that differentiation is actually a “higher order” process that involves balancing both connection and autonomy, like this:







Schnarch notes: “Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be a part of the group…Differentiation is your ability to maintain your sense of self when you are emotionally and/or physically close to others—especially as they become increasingly important to you… Emotional fusion is connection without individuality…The opposite of differentiation is neither connection nor lack of connection—it’s a different kind of connection.”

Okay, let me translate that—my words now: differentiation is about being who you are with all the uniquely wonderful uniqueness with which God made you while at the same time being in relationship with others. It’s not about being solely autonomous, independent, individual me, and it’s not about being emotionally fused with another—it’s about being able to be who I am while at the same time being connected to you. To stand and live in this place in all of our relationships is a lifelong task and one that begins writ large in adolescence, which brings us to the other occasion we mark today—the Rite of Passage.

These 7 soon-to-be or already-turned 13-year olds and their parents stand before us as a living icon of this dance of differentiation. Parents who have raised these young people, nursed them, fed them, comforted them, and guided them have to loosen their hold. Young people who have been so very dependent are moving in ever wider circles to discover who they are in their own right. And the trick for both, the elegant dance that each must do, is to allow the other to blossom in their own unique way while at the same time staying connected. And this isn’t just true of the parent-child relationship, but it also holds true in our partnerships and intimate relationships, this holds true in friendships, and in all the other configurations of relationships that we experience—family, work, church. Schnarch gives us one picture of the task before us, the Trinity icons for us what this life looks like.

There will surely be missteps along the way—parents holding too close or not close enough, young people pushing too hard against in an effort to claim their individuality, or not claiming their voice strongly enough.

Young people, being an island unto yourself, doing your own thing because it’s your own thing is not the goal—being the wondrous, gifted, blessed son and daughter of God that you are fully engaged with the rest of the world is.

Parents, holding them close in an effort to spare your child suffering is not the goal—we are a death and resurrection people—as parents, we have to continually let the images we have of our children die if they are to be born anew into the person they are becoming.

And for all of you, parent and young person—the goal is to stay connected while each of you continues growing into the full stature of Christ. You are all on a journey, each and every one of you. And as with the Trinity, we don’t do any of this in isolation, but we always do this journey in community; we make our way together.

You are never alone—God is always flowing around you and through you, drawing you into the circle, in one moment holding you close, in the next releasing you to dance your unique step, but you are always connected, even when you are soloing because God is the dance itself.

So, Rebecca, Galen, Riley, Maggie, Alice, Bailey, and Emma—we welcome you to this season of your life. It will be full of adventure, steps forward and steps back. Welcome to ever-widening circles of life and experience and to dances that are more intricate and complex.

Always remember this flow of love that sustains you—flowing in and through God, flowing in and through your parents, and flowing in and through this community of faith. And parents, remember this same flow of love is sustaining you, always, as Jesus said, “Even to the end of the age.”

Thank you for giving us a living breathing icon today of the work that we all are to be about—living the Trinity with our whole hearts—celebrating the glory of God that lives inside each one of us made that much more glorious for sharing it with one another, watching the wheel of love go round and round, birthing life and creation itself as it goes.

Our blessing goes with you as you now step out in faith. Be patient with those of us who don’t know all the new steps, but also be open that we might be able to show you a step or two—old school isn’t all bad.

It takes all of us to dance this great and glorious dance, and in the dancing, we will know God, not by a name that we can speak, not by a doctrine that we can comprehend, but by the rhythm of love that beats in our hearts, in our souls, across creation, across the realms—within us, beyond us, between us. Don’t lose your mind trying to understand this mystery, just dance it until you feel it in your bones. Amen.


The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

May 31, 2015